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KELLI SHAW of Duluth describes why she will miss the Miller Hill Kmart store, which the company announced it plans to close. She just had a baby and goes there often for baby supplies. Her mother also works at the store.

Attention, Kmart shoppers

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DULUTH -- Mary Shaw called her daughter Thursday morning in tears.

The 60-year-old assistant manager had just found out she was losing her job at the Miller Hill Kmart store after its corporate office announced its first round of national store closings.

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It's part of an effort to stop the bleeding after poor sales this holiday season and throughout the current economic downturn. Sears Holdings said Tuesday it could no longer prop up "marginally performing" locations and would refocus its efforts on stores that make money.

Shaw is an assistant manager at the doomed Duluth store. She's been there for two years, her daughter Kelli said.

Employees found out in the morning that there will be no option other than being laid off. While there are two more Kmarts in the Twin Ports -- in West Duluth and Superior -- as well as a Sears at Miller Hill Mall, there will be no opportunities for transfers there.

Managers and employees were barred from providing any information about the Duluth closing, including the number of employees there or a date for the closing.

The company named 79 stores Thursday that would close. Eventually up to 120 could close, the corporate office said. The projected closings represent about 3 percent of Sears Holdings' U.S. stores.

The closings are the latest and most visible in a long series of moves to try to fix a retailer that has struggled with falling sales and shabby stores.

Kmart has tried to stay competitive since the early 1990s. It had a much larger series of store closings in 2002 and 2003, 326 stores, while filing for bankruptcy. A store in Hibbing closed during that time.

Kmart and Sears merged in 2004.

Mary Shaw has experience in losing a job due to a store closing. She worked at the Toys R Us store in Duluth before it closed in 2006.

"It's so unfortunate," Kelli Shaw said about her mother's job. "Times are hard and now there's all these people not knowing what to do."

She said it will be especially tough for her mother. "She's 60 years old. How is she going to find something?"

Shaw just had a baby and has found herself in Kmart often in recent months. Like other customers coming out of the store Thursday, she said she will miss the helpful employees there.

"It's not always that way at other stores," she said.

Other customers realized some irony in the store closing news. They go to the Miller Hill store because they don't have to compete with a lot of other shoppers.

Steven and Amanda Aubid of Duluth were talking about that in the car before they walked into the store Thursday.

"We like to come here because it's not so busy," Steven said. And they keep coming in hopes of the store succeeding and staying put. "You usually get a pretty good deal."

Pat Foeltz of Twig laments the loss of another store option, saying she misses the now defunct Montgomery Ward retail stores.

"I think Walmart has pretty much cornered the market," she said, and then admitted that she finds herself there more often than Kmart. "It's a sign of the times."

Wendy Macmillan of Duluth was shocked when she walked out of the Kmart on Thursday. She'd just heard the news of the impending closure. Her job finds her in West Duluth and the Kmart there but she said the Miller Hill store often has more inventory.

"Every time you turn around we're getting less and less to pick from," she said.

Macmillan said the big box stores are starting to look like the grocery market in Duluth.

"Super One, Super One, Super One," she said. "Soon you find there are no options."

Kathryne Ford knows what she likes. The 11-year-old found the Kmart store to be a secret haven for her pop culture addiction to Beatles-ensconced items. She flashed the Fab Four notebook she scored Thursday while shopping with her mother.

Ford said she finds other obscure items in the store with the help of staff there.

"They've always been so friendly and helpful," she said. "It's really sad because so many people will lose their jobs."

But Ford, like so many customers Thursday, admits she didn't go to the store enough.

"We could have done more," she said. "I say people should come shop here before it closes and support the workers."

Mike Creger is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune, a publication of Forum Communications Co.

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